Independence High School football coach Steve Papin saw the news about the Miami Marlins’ coronavirus outbreak and immediately changed his plans for the day.
“I won’t lie to you,” Papin said Monday. “I put all my football stuff on hold. I got up this morning, put all my stuff on my computer file and said, ‘To be determined.’”
A week earlier, high school communities across California bought some time — nearly five months, to be exact — and were energized by hope when state officials announced that the start of the sports calendar would be delayed until winter rather than canceled.
Then came Monday’s sobering reminder that time and hope might not be enough.
More than a dozen Marlins players and staff members tested positive for coronavirus on the first weekend of a rebooted baseball season. Maybe five months from now, the outbreak that rocked the sports world will be long forgotten. But at this moment, with the pandemic still raging, it was another punch to the idea that high school sports will safely return during the upcoming academic year.
If the virus can spread through a Major League Baseball team, how can a high school program with far fewer resources than professional and college sports survive in the COVID-19 era without a vaccine or cure?
“You kind of hoped that these sports that got going, they would show the way to do it successfully and maybe appease some people’s fears about the ability to do it,” said Steve Sell, the football coach and athletic director at Aragon in San Mateo. “That news does not help. But we’re a long way from December and January. Things can change quickly, but typically the change that changes quickly has been on the negative side.”
Encinal football coach Keith Minor didn’t need the Marlins outbreak to shed insight on the uphill climb sports faces while trying to return amid a pandemic. He saw it when cases spiked this summer within some of college football’s top programs as teams returned to campus for conditioning.
“If you follow college football, which to me is much more aligned with what high school football will go through, you’re seeing major programs with immaculate facilities shutting down,” Minor said. “When you start looking at the budget constraints that we have as educators, it’s hard for me to justify putting kids out there if we don’t feel good about putting kids in the classroom.”
Minor said his program in Alameda was not cleared for summer conditioning in a modified form — something many Bay Area schools were allowed to do — and he understood the decision to remain sidelined even though it wasn’t easy on him and his team.
“I’m conflicted,” Minor said. “I really want to go out there because I know it’s important for the kids to have this outlet. I think this pandemic has really had people appreciate the importance of high school sports. But on the other side, as a coach, how would you feel if one of your kids got this and they died from it? Sure, the numbers are low of that happening. Or their grandmother gets this and dies.
“We’re cautiously optimistic. You hope that the White House is accurate in saying that by the end of the year there is a vaccine. But this thing changes daily. If anyone says that they know, they don’t know.”
Papin, a former Arena Football League standout with the San Jose SaberCats, said he has struggled to remain optimistic all along.
“Getting back in January, fingers crossed,” said Papin, who returned to Independence in San Jose this spring after coaching last season at Menlo-Atherton. “But to be honest I don’t think we’re going to see football until (fall) 2021 because when you look at the Marlins thing with the outbreak and I look up on Facebook and Twitter every day and my buddies are at the beach, at the park, until people shelter in place to try to stop it, I just think it’s going to keep growing.
“I’d love to play. I feel for these seniors, these high school kids and college kids that can’t play. But I just think that until we as a society and as a nation take it seriously and sacrifice for the future, we’re going to be in trouble.
“We’re in this social-media world where we want to be out partying, taking pictures of our food and, ‘Hey, look at me, I’m at Santana Row,’ instead of sheltering in place for the greater good. That’s just the issue. I think it’s selfish.”
Clayton Valley Charter football coach Tim Murphy said California’s hopes for high school sports’ return in January might be determined by states that plan to play this fall as scheduled, which include Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi as well as Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“We’re going to see a lot of field tests,” Murphy said. “At least we’re going to have — unless everybody shuts down — a decent amount of schools and states that are starting on time or significantly before us.”
Those field tests ultimately might be determined by what happens at the highest levels of sports and — as Aragon’s Sell noted — the Marlins outbreak Monday was not good news. But with the start of high school sports in California still five months away, Sell hopes that’s enough time for medical advancements to justify reopening schools and returning to sports.
If it isn’t, well, Sell understands the impact it will have on families.
“When your kid’s in the middle of it, it’s really hard not to look at it through your parent lens,” Sell said. “You’re only as happy as your unhappiest kid. If this thing is taking something away — which it has; it’s robbing kids, whether they’re in college or high school, of a significant and important phase of their life — it’s tragic to them.
“When people say, ‘Well, these kids have to keep things in perspective,’ I think that statement reeks of a lack of empathy. I feel so badly for the kids that are going through this and the parents who have to see their kids suffer.”